Last night it happened again. I lay in my bed for six hours straight, tossing and turning, finally listening to the silence outside give way to the sounds of early morning traffic on the avenue where I live, long before the birds have begun to sing or the sun has even shown the first hint of its light in the sky. But that all happens eventually too. Another night has gone by where sleep has completely eluded me. Eventually I will doze for a couple of fitful hours in the morning before my cats demand they be fed and I get up and slowly start my day.
My ex had been my opposite. He is one of those people who are out like a light the minute their heads hit their pillows. These are people who can sleep anywhere--in their car, on the couch, in the woods, sitting up...even standing up. They sleep through all sorts of noises. When we were together, I would lay there next to him in the bed we occasionally shared and listen to his heavy breathing and be sick with envy and isolation.
It’s been this way forever.
When I was barely four years-old I’d start screaming that I couldn’t sleep into the scary pitch-black bedroom I shared with my mother and stepfather until my stepfather finally silenced me with spankings so hard they left large black-and-blues on my butt, which made me refuse to sit down the next day at my preschool, capturing the attention of the teacher who sent a note home about the issue.
Scared the authorities would be called if it happened again, my stepfather stopped spanking me (at least most of the time). But while the spankings stopped for awhile, my insomnia did not.
Fast forward to my teens and I began again to have night terrors. Unlike early childhood, they were not vague--not of slinking shadows or faceless boogie men. These dreams were vivid and violent: they had become bloodier, more defined. My subconscious now knew what it feared, for it had put faces and actions to it, made it writhing and livid like a living thing.
I dreamed of being brutally raped by a fanged demon--a recurring dream that started shortly after I turned eleven but ramped up to a near-nightly event once I hit high school. In other dreams I was chased through abandoned alleyways. Eventually, these men caught up with me, and maimed me or assaulted me in horrific ways. In one dream a man cut out my tongue and I watched while it flopped around on a dining room table like a fish out of water, while blood spurt out of my mouth like water from a fire hose. In another dream a man tried to drown me in a river. When that didn’t kill me fast enough, he sliced his knife across my stomach, grabbed my guts and wrapped them around my neck like a noose, trying to choke me to death with my own intestines while I was still under water. I woke up gagging and gasping, my fingers grasping at my neck. I couldn’t--I wouldn’t-- fall back asleep. Instead I listened to my heart beat fast and hard in my chest as though it were about to rupture. I told myself over and over again that I was safe. But I did not believe it. I did not believe I was safe.
The assaults I endured in my dreams seemed as real, if not more, than the ones I experienced in my waking life, a life where I managed to emotionally detach in order to survive.
* * * * *
My family watched a lot of horror movies and so did I, way before it was age appropriate. This obviously gave my mind a lot of ammunition for these nightmares. But also, my family was its own horror show that offered me my map to guaranteed trauma.
Before I moved in with my grandparents, I had been the constant witness to my mother’s fights, first with my father, then with my stepfather. My mother and stepfather often hurled large objects at each other, sometimes leaving each other extremely battered and bruised--chunks of flesh ripped off the skin, large welts and burns marking up their embattled bodies. I was tasked with tending to their wounds. I applied ice packs and put peroxide on open cuts. When my stepfather left for good, I was alone with my baby brother in the midst of my mother’s drug addictions. On one night she would be so hopped up on cocaine that she’d do things like blast the stereo late at night, leave our door unlocked or even wide open or leave the stove top on and burning whatever she’d been cooking. Sometimes she brought strange men into the apartment and asked to call them uncles and submit to their hugs and sloppy, beer-wet kisses on my cheeks. Other nights, sometimes the very next, she dozed off on her couch in a heroin cloud, a lit cigarette dangling dangerously from her lips that I would pluck out the way some girls pluck daisies, before smashing it up in the overflowing ashtray.
I learned to sleep while still half-awake, always ready for a fire or to be woken up by a smack or a scream or sometimes just to check her breath in a pocket mirror before I went to the bathroom, to make sure she was still alive. To sleep soundly or deeply meant death, or the likeliness of it--mine, my mother’s, my brother’s--and it all fell on me to be the watchdog. I was eight.
When we moved in with my grandparents, thing got better, but only marginally. My mother sometimes took me to the alleyways where she scored after she picked me up from school, where she’d leave me there sometimes for hours, while gunshots, sirens and howling dogs could be heard in the near distance. More than once, she forgot about me altogether, wandered off or went all the way home and my grandmother asked her where I was and she’d return enraged, pulling me home by the hair as though it were all my my fault. Another time, I walked home alone, watching the darkening sky and hoping a monster wouldn’t pounce out of the shadows and assault me. Because I learned that monsters were real. They weren’t just in my head, they were in my home. I was bound to them by blood.
* * * *
In therapy I learned that the brain of an abused or severely neglected child pumps out cortisol in large amounts. This is the stress hormone--the one that preens someone for “flight or fight.” In theory, children shouldn’t be subjected to the kinds of things that make them produce huge amounts of cortisol. They are supposed to be protected by parents who should shoulder the burden of detecting and shielding them from threats. But when the parents become the threat, especially during the earlier stages of child development, that burden is shifted to an under-equipped child who responds to it for the sake of his or her own safety.
All it takes is a few incidents to cause the child’s brain completely rewire itself to be predisposed to run on cortisol--to not only to be prepared for danger, but to expect it. It becomes part of one's biology. It doesn’t matter that my mother is long dead. It doesn’t matter that adulthood has endowed me with autonomy and I am no longer the a helpless pawns to my parents’ follies. I still see danger everywhere.
* * * *
When I was in my mid-twenties I interned for a large environmental organization in Washington D.C. It was during the early days of the George W. Bush’s second term and the height of the Iraq War and not a week went by when a bill wasn’t being introduced into Congress that could kill off an endangered species or destroy a delicate habitat. The summer I started marked the London bombings and Hurricane Katrina and its sad aftermath. The city was always on red alert.
At night, no matter how early I went to bed, I wouldn’t fall asleep till around 3am. Then I would wake at 7am and dress and walk the mile and a half to the subway station to take to DuPont Circle and start the cycle all over again. During the days I wasn't on Capitol Hill, I sat in a windowless room lit by the relentless glare of fluorescent lights. I sat at a long desk with other interns all lined up at our desktops, like cattle at the trough.
My nightmares had become less regular, but did not disappear entirely. In high school, I had stopped watching horror movies or reading any scary stories (including the Bible). When that wasn’t enough to discourage my dream demons--when the cruelty of this world still weighed on me in the midnight hours, I tried to disassociate myself as much as possible from any evil, to refrain from being any kind of contributor or source for another’s suffering. I stopped eating meat, stopped using products that tested on animals, tried to only buy thrift store clothes and goods so my money wouldn’t be used to directly prop up systems of oppression that relied on sweatshop or slave labor. It helped a little. I felt like I was at least trying to be part of the solution and I started sleeping a bit better.
But while I was interning in D.C. all my efforts to be good, to help make this planet a better place, began to seem so small and futile. The world was so big and mean, and not only could I not save everyone, I felt like I couldn’t save anyone, not even myself. On the weekends, I barely left my bedroom, watching DVDs I ordered from Netflix. My boyfriend at the time became exasperated with me, as I was always tired and cranky and suddenly uninterested in sex. I was running on only three or four hours of sleep a night during the week. My days were filled with paper pushing to politicians who didn’t give a shit about the destruction their actions caused others. I came home from work with headaches so severe all I craved was the dark cave of my bedroom. I didn’t want to go out exploring our nation’s Capitol, I didn’t want to drive to my boyfriend’s in Baltimore and join him and his friends at the bar. I just wanted to get some fucking sleep. And I didn’t want to dream.
* * * * * * *
Now in my mid-thirties, when I can’t sleep it’s not due to nightmares or even the anxiety of having to wake early and again join the drill of daily office work as I am a freelancer who makes her own hours. Instead it’s from the pain and anxiety that has accumulated in my body--the turmoil of too much trauma--an emotional scar tissue taking a very real physical toll.
A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia to explain my widespread, chronic pain. Though there are some instances of past physical trauma that no doubt contribute to my pain, the impact of my early overexposure to cortisol is probably the primary culprit. Cortisol is known to super-sensitizes nerve signals to pain, as another way to prep me to fight or flee. But my body has become too sensitive to stimulus and has hair-trigger reactions to the slightest of stresses. Standing up for a little too long or wearing the wrong shoes or seeing something on the news that upsets me can make my body sweat profusely and my muscles seize up in a state of spasm. In my bed, I will often shift positions for hours trying to find one that causes the least discomfort One position might help my back but hurt my hips, another will make my neck ache but calm my quaking calves. At the same time, I sometimes still get up several times a night to check the stove to make sure it’s still off and the doors to make sure they’re locked, on my cats to ensure they’re still breathing. The smallest of noises still jolt me awake.
As I got older and I began to share my stories, people would say I seemed so strong, so resilient. Here I am, a college graduate with my own apartment and car. Here I am, able to rise each day, eat reasonably healthy and shower and pay my rent and bills on time, somehow managing not to murder anyone or go on a bender and rob a bank.
But people with pasts like mine do not escape unscathed.
It lies behind my eyes and resides in my bones. Its ghosts echo in the aches and pains I endure everyday Most of all, it is manifested in my many sleepless nights.